Loving and being loved, pursuit of truth, integrity, courage, the overcoming of obstacles, conscious self-creation, integration with a social network, all define the life of excellence.
A human life is minimally meaningful if and only if it embodies enough freely chosen interests, projects, purposes, and commitments to engage the bearer and animate his or her faith in life. These interests, projects, purposes and commitments connect a life to value or to other meaning. A minimally worthwhile life is one worth living, a life such that one would not be better off dead or never having been born. The activities that bring minimal meaning must be appropriate to the experience, they must be real not simulated, not induced through external agency, nor merely hallucinations. But the bar of a meaningful life is quite low. Lives are worth continuing and minimally meaningful where great achievement is lacking. Minimal meaning produces enough satisfaction of desires and interests to block suicide or justified voluntary euthanasia.
Minimally meaningful lives typically are connected to lesser or to fewer values and meanings, or more tenuously to value and meaning generally than are robustly meaningful lives.
A significant life leaves historical footprints.
Some lives are more meaningful than other lives. Robustly meaningful lives, the ones to which we aspire, embody interests, projects, purposes, and commitments that produce significance. A robustly meaningful life is significant, sometimes important, and occasionally even exemplary. We, typically, hope not merely to maintain our lives, but to strive for our vision of a good life. To be significant a life must influence the lives of others in uncommon ways. A significant life leaves historical footprints. To be important a life must be significant enough to make a relatively enduring difference in the world. These historical footprints express, thereby making more public, the importance of the life. To be exemplary, a life must be meaningful, significant, important, and valuable enough to serve as a model or ideal.
Most of us do not have stunningly significant and important lives, although almost all of us do affect the lives of others. Most of our lives fall somewhere between minimally meaningful and robustly meaningful lives. The degree and manner of influence is crucial. To be valuable, lives must be linked to and support value. Some of the more important types of value are moral, cognitive, aesthetic, and religious. A valuable life is always meaningful, but a meaningful life may not be valuable.
If our actions fit into a reasonably coherent scheme, are not futile in that we can in principle achieve our goals or at least make valuable progress toward them, and have purposes within our life scheme, we have no good reason to think our lives are meaningless or that they are absurd. Even if life as a whole lacks inherent meaning, particular lives can range from minimally to robustly meaningful. Some lives, however, fail even to fulfill the criteria of minimal meaningfulness. Such lives are literally not worth living.
We must love life and the world.
The best way to understand meaning in life, is relationally. We gain meaning by connecting to and standing in a relationship with value, significance, and importance. As long as we are limited beings, we can always imagine beings or things of lesser limitations, and bemoan our relative insignificance. We cannot guarantee wise and creative use of the cosmic perspective— that measures human life from the external vantage point of an indifferent cosmic observer. The cosmic perspective is always available to bring us down, if we so choose. But why should we so choose? The metaphor of a telescope suggests that we should use the cosmic perspective and the personal perspective—that evaluates human life from the internal vantage point of a person living his or her life—artfully in order to facilitate meaning and value.
Much of the meaning of life is in the process: imagining and dreaming, planning and organizing, integrating and striving. The metaphor of a pogo stick (or slinky toy) suggests that human beings bound through life in a continuous process that includes purposive goals and related consummations that engender new goals, and so on. The process is valuable in that instead of merely covering the same dreary ground we continuingly self-create. Time spent on matters of more enduring importance such as great music, classical drama, philosophical reflection, and intense personal relationships is often of greater importance than time spent on more mundane matters such as watching television programs with limited shelf time or engaging in meaningless small talk to pass time. This judgment stems from the transcendent nature of the more important matters, how they point to values and meaning beyond themselves. Loving and being loved, pursuit of truth, integrity, courage, the overcoming of obstacles, conscious self-creation, integration with a social network, all define the life of excellence more closely than material accumulation, social approval, and the quest for fame as self-validation.
We must learn to appreciate life as an endlessly dynamic process of change, not a fixed state.
Meaningful lives require faith and love. We must adopt some form of Nietzsche’s amor fati. We must love life and the world. We must give the world our fullest response. We must expand our subjectivity through connections and relationships. We will experience our lives as meaningful only if we present the requisite attitude to the world. To do all, or any, of this we must have faith. Reason cannot support our convictions and actions all the way down.
The search for meaning, emboldened by values that point to but never reach the eternal, is too often obscured by our lives of habit and diversion. We must learn to appreciate life as an endlessly dynamic process of change, not a fixed state. We must understand that a robustly meaningful life, married to a joyous or peaceful psychological condition that is earned, defines high aspirations. And then we must live.
~Raymond Angelo Belliotti, SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Philosophy, is the author of 18 books including What is the Meaning of Human Life? (2001).
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